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"Magic Town" is a film about something that we nowadays take as normal
but which was a novelty in 1947. It was about the new "science" of
public opinion polling. This was only understood poorly and not only by
the public but by those who actually mattered: the politicians who
would grow to need them. In 1936 the Literary Digest, a popular
magazine of the day, had conducted a poll of it's membership on who
would win the Presidency. It concluded that Governor Alfred Landon of
Kansas, a capable man, would beat incumbent President Franklin
Roosevelt. Unfortunately the readership of the Digest were upper class,
and basically Republican (as Landon was). In November 1936 FDR won one
of the biggest landslides in political history, with three quarters of
the popular vote and all the electoral votes except for those of Maine
and Vermont. Literary Digest went out of business shortly afterwords.
In the decade since Roper and Gallup had been improving polling
techniques, but the full system was still uncertain. In the 1948
election there would be another polling snafu, with most of the polls
awarding the election to Governor Thomas Dewey of New York, as opposed
to incumbent President Harry Truman. Harry won a remarkable
come-from-behind over Tom, and enjoyed showing off a headline from the
Republican "Chicago Tribune" saying that Tom won.
In the midst of all this there was a classic sociology study entitled "Middletown". Set in the typical mid-American town (it was in the Midwest) the authors (a husband and wife team) showed how it's citizens opinions mirrored what mid-America believed. Ten years later the same authors published a follow up study of the town, and it turned there was little change in the opinion differentials between the town and the country.
It is with the "Middletown" study that the background of this film was based. Jimmy Stewart and his assistants (including Ned Sparks and Donald Meek - in his last role) are pollsters, and Stewart has a theory he has been working on that would save pollsters millions. He believes there is a perfect community in the middle of America that can be used for polling it's citizens. He has been studying the problem for several years, and he has found a town where the percentages of the opinions of the citizens perfectly mirror those of the American people as a whole. Stewart goes to the town and sets up there with the intention of using the citizens as his poling guinea pigs, but (as the movie progresses) he gets involved with Jane Wyman and the others in the town. When Wyman discovers Stewart's plans she reveals them, and the town goes crazy. Their sudden unofficial power goes to their heads, and instead of giving the sensible polling answers to questions they give outlandish ones. This causes the crash of their reputation, and the crisis of the film.
It is a first rate film and has some nice touches (including Gabriel Heater intoning on the radio). As an early story regarding the polling industry it is unique, and the film is well acted and directed (by William Wellman). Perhaps not a Capra movie, but it is a nice one all the same.
I have to admit the premise behind Magic Town was a really good and
original one. The fact that small time pollster James Stewart discovers
a town that is a microcosm of American thinking. What a shortcut, just
move in there and poll the citizens on any question. But you have to do
it with subterfuge and the town can never have any marked growth of any
kind or the goose that's laying Stewart's golden egg is cooked.
Enter Jane Wyman, acting editor of the small town paper who has some ideas about getting the town to grow. That sets up the conflict with Stewart and then the romantic complications set in. Their romance and their differing agendas set the tone for the rest of the film.
I think with a lighter touch this could have been a classic film. It's not a bad film, it's moving in spots, but the subject matter doesn't lend itself to Frank Capra type populism. I'm sure this is a property that Capra himself must have rejected.
Stewart and Wyman are ably supported by the usual group of great character performers that usually populate a Capra film. William Wellman directed this and I think he was out of his element. He's so much better in action films.
It's also so old fashioned in its view of small town America. I can't believe that such a place like Grandview could possibly exist. Think about it, a cross section of America would have its bad people too among the population. Not a bad person in the whole town.
And they even list a U.S. Senator in their population. That would in and of itself make it atypical by his mere presence. In fact when this film was made Harry Truman was president and certainly Independence, Missouri has never been "typical" since he came to political prominence.
My favorite scene is the dance where the whole crowd except the outsider Stewart sing the high school song. It's sung to the tune of I'll Take You Home Again, Kathleen. It's a nice moment and it demonstrates just how alien big city slicker Jimmy Stewart is in this environment. It's good, but it does tip over into the saccharine.
Both Stewart and Wyman have certainly done better, but fans of both these performers will like it. But can you imagine what someone like Preston Sturges would have done with this material?
Certainly not one of the great comedies, but charming and rather whimsical in its own way. In this day and age of raucous and crude humour (if you can call it that), a movie like "Magic Town" will probably seem hopelessly old-fashioned and dated, but for those who prefer a quieter and more gentle humour, "Magic Town" will fill the bill very nicely. Very Frank Capra-like (not surprisingly since screenwriter Robert Riskin collaborated with Capra numerous times), "Magic Town" reminds us of a by-gone era, a time when living in a small town meant knowing your neighbours, pride in your community, and the moral values of common decency and humility were still part of everyday life. James Stewart as the pollster who discovers a town full of people whose opinions exactly mirror the national thinking gives his customary good performance, as does Jane Wyman as the newspaper publisher who wants to see change in the town. Many well-known character actors (Kent Smith, Wallace Ford, Ann Shoemaker and particularly Ned Sparks) provide capable support. A slight offering, perhaps, but quite worthwhile.
Written and produced by frequent Frank Capra collaborator Robert Riskin
and starring the director's three-time leading man James Stewart, one
would be excused for mistaking this for a film by the celebrated
purveyor of socially-conscious comedies.
However, while the plot is typically original and engaging, somehow it lacks Capra's unique cinematic expertise in putting over Riskin's ideas: the tone is too often syrupy and sentimental, while the hero isn't made to face formidable villains such as one finds in Capra's work. Even if director Wellman was more at home in outdoor actioners, he often displayed a social side and, for the record, had previously triumphed in two classic films set in contemporary times namely the original version of A STAR IS BORN and the screwball comedy NOTHING SACRED (1937).
Stewart is a poll expert who believes that one city in the U.S. could be deemed the reference point as to how the whole nation thinks and feels about all aspects of life its aspirations, trends, political views, etc. His report leads him to settle on the small Midwestern town of Grandview which, however, is on the point of modernizing itself (via a project bequeathed to local reporter Jane Wyman by her father). This would, doubtless, affect the idealized image being promoted by Stewart of Grandview as the prototypical American town with its simple way of life, so he manipulates the populace (without letting them on to his line of work) into opposing Wyman's scheme! This doesn't prevent the two from falling in love a romance which ends, though, when she overhears him speaking to his superior in New York; distraught, she exposes his racket but, in so doing, brings a whole circus of 'prospectors' and newshounds upon Grandview so that the next poll turns out to be a disaster, and the town is disgraced!
Stewart is dismayed by all of this; however, he keeps in touch with the people of Grandview (the kids especially had learned to look up to him in view of his basketball prowess!) and, of course, Wyman. Eventually, he hits upon the idea that a pompous statement made earlier (but which remained unpublished) by the highest authorities in Grandview that, if necessary, they'll erect the proposed civic centre with their own hands could be used now to symbolize the town's determination to re-emerge An RKO production, the film also features such reliable performers as Ned Sparks and Donald Meek as Stewart's associates, Kent Smith as a Grandview professor and ex-school chum of Stewart's, and Wallace Ford as one of the eminent townspeople.
A year before this film came out there were major news stories about a
`perfect American city,' but once the story broke
so did the illusion.
People had to learn the perfect society has to be practiced individually,
intentionally and daily for it to become a reality.
I just re-watched this film again today and was very entertained by James Stewart (winking and charming) and Jane Wyman (smart and sexy). Packed with the Robert Riskin type characters this story lacks the `real' message of his earlier films and there in lies it's only weakness. It's a fun trip but after we've gone in circles for a while we are reminded there is no place like home. Still this film has lots of treasures in the performances, dialogue, physical comedy and rich diversity home spun Americana characters. I recommend this to all fans of the Capra-Riskin genre.
P.S. It's also your last chance to enjoy the work of Ned Sparks & Donald Meek who both died after completing this minor masterpiece of Riskin-corn.
Stewart's previous movie was "It's a Wonderful Life", and this one drinks
from the same well.
It has a strong underlying moral about being true to yourself, and extols the virtues of honesty, pride in your small-town community. The town appears to be a microcosm of America, but it can only be that while it still has its innocence: once it tries to cash in on its status, disaster strikes.
It's a gentle, heartwarming little movie. Jimmy Stewart and the then Mrs Reagan do the romantic lead bits, and lots of people with "interesting" faces play "typical small town characters", the children manage to avoid being ridiculously cute, and it's all quite charming.
Watch out for the Senator's wife and the ancient employees of the newspaper, who are the most obviously funny characters. This may be billed as a comedy, but it's one to be amused by, and brings smiles to you face rather than guffaws and belly-laughs.
If you liked James Stewart in "It's a Wonderful Life" and "The Philadelphia Story", this one's for you.
Okay, I'll admit the plot is silly and contrived. Sure, the idea of an actuary determining that there is a "perfect" city that is actually statistically represents America in a microcosm is silly. And, their plan NOT to tell anyone in the town but surreptitiously poll just these townspeople in order to find out what America thinks about a wide variety of issues is far-fetched. BUT, with Jimmy Stewart and Jane Wyman as well as William Wellman's direction, who cares?! This is one of those "just sit back and enjoy" pictures that isn't particularly deep but that is charming and great fun to watch. And I think we need a few films like this now and again.
This was very good in the first half, a disappointment in the second.
When things were going good, it was light-hearted and fun to watch,
even inspiring to see "Lawrence 'Rip' Smith (James Stewart) and his
idolizing kids. But, but when "Smith" was exposed as someone else, the
story went in the opposite direction, almost depressing. The
townspeople were still interesting to watch, even making fools of
themselves with their suddenly-inflated egos but, they, too, lost their
After these ups and downs, we get a Frank Capra-like ending where all things work out, even with a few credibility holes in the story. In all, a so-so human interest story perhpas worth a rental if you're a James Stewart fan, but not buying.
Maybe the silliest story ever to make it onto the silver screen. James Stewart plays a pollster looking for a town of such mathematical perfection that, whatever you polled its people, it would reflect exactly what the entire nation would feel about a give subject. He finds this place in Grandview, and there he takes his team. When Stewart finds local newspaper editor Jane Wyman trying to convince the town council to build a new civic center, he butts in. If the town were to change at all, its magical polling phenomenon could fade. Similar to The Music Man, Stewart develops a relationship with Wyman to keep the town as it is. Fortunately, it's less cynical and fake than the relationship between the two main characters of The Music Man, and, where Robert Preston's love still seems suspicious by the end of that film, Stewart's feels genuine quickly. He doesn't want the miracle to end, but he is utterly seduced not only by Wyman, but also by the small town. When the town discovers their perfect polling ability, they screw it up pretty much instantly (79% of the population say they would vote for a woman president!). The town goes down the toilet, and it's up to some faithful citizens, joined by the reformed Stewart, to save it. As ridiculous as the initial concept for Magic Town is, it gets even worse near the end. Stewart did this film directly after It's a Wonderful Life, and the small town sentiment is nearly identical in both films. While the first touches me, it's simply schmaltzy in Magic Town. The performances by Stewart and Wyman, as well as many decent supporting performances from many ever-reliable character actors, are better than the movie deserves. Stewart, in particular, is great. I've never seen this guy give a bad performance, and he throws himself behind this awful script with his full soul. He almost got me to buy it. Wyman's beautiful eyes enchanted me. But in the end, the story was just too ludicrous. 6/10.
I will comment on this film in general terms and try to avoid
I have read through a lot of other people's comments and I think many of them missed the point of Magic Town. Yes, it's old-fashioned and a little corny, and yes it's not as good as It's A Wonderful Life, but in my opinion, IAWL is one of the most emotionally-stirring and profound films ever made. I have seen IAWL many times, but have never made it through the final scene without tears!
In very simplistic terms IAWL is about the positive effects one person can have on society, without even realizing it, while Magic Town is more about the negative effects one can have on the masses.
Someone previously commented "Not a bad person in the whole town".
The plot does not focus on purely "bad" people because that would detract from the point of the narrative. In this film, James Stewart is essentially the bad guy! He's selfish, greedy, manipulative and dishonest, and it is his actions, with a little bit of help from Jane Wyman, that cause a chain of events that virtually destroy the fabric of the town. When this happens, these "good" people become pessimistic, lazy and selfish.
However, I do agree with some of the other comments, including the one that says "People had to learn the perfect society has to be practiced individually, intentionally and daily for it to become a reality." That is at the core of this film, and it is illustrated beautifully.
I won't spoil it for people who haven't seen the film, but I think the way that the main characters turn this situation around is truly brilliant!
Anyway, what I'm trying to say is that, on its own merits, Magic Town is a truly wonderful film. If you are a fan of IAWL, James Stewart or Jane Wyman - or just a fan of a good stories with depth, darkness, humor, personality and emotion - I recommend it highly.
I give it 8/10. (IAWL gets a 9/10.)
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